Thanksgiving may owe its existence to beer or, more precisely, the lack thereof.
The Pilgrims originally set sail for the northern reaches of the Virginia colony, but the Mayflower was forced to dock at Plymouth Rock because of poor navigation, wintry weather and dwindling supplies. As the ship's log noted, "We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our Beere." We won't have that supply problem this Thanksgiving.
There are conflicting views on which beers go best with turkey, the range extending from intensely bitter India pale ales to malty Maerzen-style lagers. Personally, piles of leaves and billowing chimneys always put me in the mood for smoked beer. At one time, when malt was commonly kilned over an open, wood-fueled flame, all beer had some degree of smokiness. Today, smoked beer has a small but loyal following.
Patterned after the Rauchbiers of Bamberg, Germany, is Rogue Smoke from Newport, Ore., brewed with malt smoked over beechwood and alderwood. Available in 22-ounce silk-screened bottles, Rogue Smoke has an almost bacon-like aroma, a rich, oily sweetness up front and a bitter, well-hopped finish that cuts through gravy-drenched, fatty foods.
More subtle is Jinx , an autumnal seasonal from Vermont's Magic Hat Brewing Co., a company known for its enigmatic brand names and psychedelic label art. Jinx has a chocolaty sweetness from the roasted malt and a dry, earthy finish with a hint of phenol from a small amount of peat-smoked whiskey malt. It "prepares the bones for snow," the Jinx folks claim.
As a novelty, you might want to serve a beer that actually incorporates a traditional Thanksgiving ingredient. Once again, the Boston Beer Co. will release its Sam Adams Cranberry Lambic this month as part of its Winter Classics variety pack. This golden ale with a pinkish tinge has a tart fruit flavor and a smooth, sweet finish from a dollop of maple syrup.
(By the way, a "lambic" is a Belgian style of ale exposed to the open air and fermented with wild microorganisms. Genuine lambics are an acquired taste, often exhibiting a mouth-puckering acidity and gamy flavors that beer enthusiasts frequently liken to a horse blanket. Sam Adams Cranberry Lambic incorporates some unmalted wheat, like its Belgian namesakes, but it's fermented with a commercial strain of yeast for a more accessible taste.)
Canada has its own Thanksgiving Day (albeit celebrated in October), and the Unibroue brewery in Chambly, Quebec, has released its own take on a seasonal fruit beer, Cranberry Ephemere , spiced with bitter orange zest. Look for it in 750-milliliter corked bottles.
The use of unusual ingredients in beer isn't something that began with modern craft brewing. Lacking ready supplies of barley, our Colonial ancestors pressed into service whatever fermentables they could find. An early bit of doggerel concludes:
Oh we can make liquor to sweeten our lips,
Of pumpkins, of parsnips, of walnut tree chips.
It's too early to tell whether the current crop of pumpkin beers represents a style reborn or a brief fad. However, I counted half a dozen varieties on area shelves this year, including the new Jack's pumpkin spice ale that Anheuser-Busch has released as part of its Michelob specialty sampler collection.
Best of the lot is Punkin' Ale from the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware. Allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg dominate the aroma, letting the pumpkin poke through in the flavor. The russet-colored ale has a lingering sweetness from an addition of brown sugar, and a sensation of alcoholic warmth. Expect to pay about $8 for a four-pack, but Dogfish beers are worth the premium.
If all the pumpkin ales have been plucked, search the shelves for Harpoon Winter Warmer , a cold-weather seasonal from the Harpoon Brewery in Boston. No fruit goes into this beer, but a generous spicing with cinnamon and nutmeg lend a flavor that's been described as liquid pumpkin pie. It's dessert you can drink.
Greg Kitsock is editor of the Mid-Atlantic Brewing News and senior editor of American Brewer magazine. He writes about beer once a month for Food and can be reached email@example.com.